Though child actors have developed a bad reputation nowadays due to questionable acting or just being written as annoying, it is still possible for there to be great child stars. Though you might immediately think of someone like Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker to bolster your skepticism, there are plenty of good counterexamples to restore your faith in the children. We already ticked off the biggest young stars of the ’80s, so this list will examine the decade of the ’90s, to remind you just how many big child actors were out there at just that one point.
While not every name on this list would go on to have a phenomenal acting career as they got older, quite a few found success as they came into adulthood. But even the names on this list who are just known for one big role have left a lasting impression, and prove it’s not how many roles an actor has, but what they do with it. Get ready for a heavy dose of nostalgia, because we’re about to turn the clock back as we look at the 16 Top Child Stars of the 1990s.
16. JALEEL WHITE
Long before The Big Bang Theory belatedly tried to get a chuckle at that whole nerd culture thing, Family Matters was saved from almost certain cancellation when it stumbled across a character that viewers organically grew to find funny in Steve Urkel. Stuff like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and superhero movies weren’t yet mainstream, so there were actually some laughs to be had from Urkel’s geeky interests, and awkward social interactions. He took over Family Matters with his bumbling mannerisms, and his naïve and nasally catchphrase “Did I do that?”
Less talked about, though still significant, is the other big role Jaleel had in the ‘90s — voice acting the blue speedster Sonic the Hedgehog. Is there any character more emblematic of the decade than Sonic and his now hugely outdated vernacular? While corny in retrospect, there’s still some nostalgic love to be found for Jaleel’s voice work in the multiple Sonic cartoons he worked on. Jaleel is an actor who dwindled from relevance as the ‘90s faded, but was impossible not to know about during the time.
15. MARA WILSON
While it seems like many child actors leave the profession due to not being able to replicate a one time success, Mara Wilson was an actress who didn’t really have that problem. Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street, and Matilda were her first three films, and she’s well-known for each of them. If she had not lost her passion for acting, it’s likely she could have continued to have more big roles in her future. At the time she left the industry, she had supposedly just been offered a chance to audition for the beloved cult classic, Donnie Darko.
As it is, Wilson has said she found the lack of free expression in acting to be tiresome, and it led to her retiring from film roles. That’s done nothing to quell her enthusiasm for entertainment, though, and she has since appeared in the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, in videos with her friend Lindsay Ellis (best known for her former role as the Nostalgia Chick), and has even gotten into writing for plays. When seeing some of the tragic stories that led other actors in this list to leave acting, it’s good to see one like Mara Wilson who left on her own terms and is doing well for herself since then.
14. KENAN THOMPSON
Before he would join the cast of Saturday Night Live, Kenan Thompson got plenty of practice in skit comedy and ad lib in a very similar show for kids — All That. The show was a mainstay on Nickelodeon for years, and helped multiple young actors get their start, but Kenan’s popularity is one of the few that has managed to endure to a degree.
During the height of his rise, he was put into the sitcom Kenan & Kel and went on to have many misadventures with his orange soda loving best friend, Kel Mitchell (pictured above). And even though his career would never quite climb into superstardom, he managed to secure a few noteworthy roles after leaving childhood behind, such as starring in the Fat Albert movie. And now when he isn’t busy with Saturday Night Live, he’s returned to his roots at Nick by being the host of Teen Nick’s ‘90s block of shows for the many viewers who are happy to rewatch the shows they loved as kids.
13. AMANDA BYNES
Going from one Nickelodeon star to the next, Amanda Bynes had a similar rise to fame to Kenan Thompson. The two were actually co-stars on Nick’s All That during their childhood, and were two of the more popular entertainers on the skit show. Whereas Kenan would go on to test his hand at sitcoms with Kenan and Kel, Amanda continued to portray a wide assortment of characters in her very own skit show, The Amanda Show.
As is unfortunately a common theme among child stars, Bynes’ career eventually began to stall, and she later started popping up on our TVs not as a beloved character, but as a news piece about her legal and drug troubles. Though her problems continue to persist, she still has plenty of fans who hope to see her doing well again, and who wish the best for the young girl that entertained them years ago with a courtroom full of dancing lobsters.
12. JONATHAN TAYLOR THOMAS
Thomas is another child actor best known for the show where he got first big break. In this case, that’s the Tim Allen starring sitcom, Home Improvement, where Thomas played one of the tool man’s sons, Randy. Fans of the show will be familiar with Randy’s place as a wise-cracking trouble maker who was often seen on the sidelines as his dad blew things up around the house. It was a role he played for years, advancing into his teenage years by the time he was finished with the show.
While Jonathan has appeared on a number of popular shows in small roles — such as Smallville and Veronica Mars — his biggest contribution to the entertainment world was actually a movie he did as a child. It’s a little Disney film you might have heard of called The Lion King, where Thomas voiced a young Simba. He never really broke out as an actor due to his focus on his academic career, but he continued to make sporadic appearances on TV up until about a decade ago before taking step back to pursue other endeavors.
11. MACAULAY CULKIN
When you think of ‘90s child actors, Macaulay Culkin’s screaming face from the first Home Alone movie is probably one of the first things to pop into your mind. Home Alone and its sequel Home Alone 2 (but not any of the subsequent terrible sequels which Culkin had the fortune of not starring in) have become favorites for many to revisit during the holiday season. They were a great demonstration of a movie starring a child actor where the protagonist wasn’t unbearably annoying.
Unfortunately for Culkin, the reason his career is so synonymous with Home Alone is because it was the one hit his acting career had. He tried to branch out into a few other roles, such as playing a child psychopath opposite a young and innocent Elijah Wood in The Good Son, and trying out another rich kid role similar to Kevin McCallister in Richie Rich, but he never recaptured his early success. Culkin ultimately wound up retiring from acting at the age of 14, but his days of rigging up a house full of traps for clumsy burglars have immortalized him as a fixture of the ‘90s.
10. MARY-KATE AND ASHLEY OLSEN
Everywhere you looked, everywhere you went, in the ‘90s, the Olsen twins were to be found. They got their start in the entertainment world on Full House before they were even old enough to form complete sentences, and they’ve been getting paired together in TV and movies ever since. They’ve nearly always been a package deal in their work because each sister’s name has just become so synonymous with the other. In a way it’s led to them being typecast in a unique way of almost always having to play twins.
The sisters stopped appearing together in acting roles over a decade ago, though Mary-Kate has made a go at a solo career with sporadic appearances. But nowadays, the two are still known for working together, albeit in the world of fashion, where they’ve actually had a great deal of success. However, they’re so immediately associated even now with Full House that when asked to rejoin the Tanner family as part of Fuller House, the Olsen twins disappointed many by refusing to say, “You got it, dude!” No doubt, their absence was a major reason for season 1’s intense mediocrity.
9. BEN SAVAGE
Ben Savage might not be known for having a ton of different acting roles throughout his career, but the most significant one he has had left a big impression on many a childhood. Cory Matthews on Boy Meets World was someone who audience members grew up with, transitioning from his early problems of conflicts at school, onto the melodrama of romantic relationships. For seven years viewers watched the saga of Cory’s love life play out on screen, while Savage grew into a man.
Maybe being a child actor is just hereditary for the Savage family, as many will also no doubt remember Ben’s brother Fred Savage from The Wonder Years during the late ‘80s. With Girl Meets World now continuing the story of Boy Meets World, maybe Fred is hoping for a similar reboot of his show to reunite him with his own bright spot in acting. Regardless, Ben can be found nowadays playing the same character he was two decades ago — acting as Cory Matthews opposite the next person on this list.
8. DANIELLE FISHEL
The other half of one of the greatest love stories of the decade, we can’t talk about Cory from Boy Meets World without talking about Topanga in the same breath. Though she was initially a minor character, as the actors transitioned into their teenage years, the growing relationship between Cory and Topanga no doubt played a large part in the longevity of the series. And due to that longevity, we watched Fishel and her co-stars grow up on screen, going through high school and college before our eyes. Though, like Savage, Danielle does not have years of big name films or other shows to her name, the years we watched her mature have built a connection and a fondness for her and her character.
As fans of Boy Meets World no doubt know, Danielle Fishel spends her current years reprising the role of Topanga on Girl Meets World. Now a mother, Topanga takes a secondary role to her daughter as a new generation goes through the same accomplishments and missteps that we saw in the prior series. Though the new show is standard Disney Channel fare in its offerings, it’s a comfortable series to tune into for an actress and a character that have come to feel like old friends.
7. LINDSAY LOHAN
Lindsay Lohan’s ups and downs are well-documented, but in the late ‘90s, she looked poised to make a splash as a big name. And despite the troubles that have led to her current stock falling low among film makers, she did indeed make an impact in her early years.
It all started with some modeling work for various advertisers, a role in the soap opera Another World, and finally making her film debut in The Parent Trap. As the ‘90s drew to a close, Lohan looked like someone who could have a lasting role in the spotlight. For a while she certainly did, being featured in the 2003 remake of Freaky Friday, and of course, her most prolific role as the star of Mean Girls.
Lohan continues to act and appear in movies to this day, but her legal and drug troubles have undoubtedly diminished her influence. Regardless, Lohan is still young and finally seems to have a handle on her troubles, so it would be great to see the former child star have a renaissance period from her promising early years.
6. JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT
Now we’re starting to get into the bigger names who you no doubt recognize from their still thriving careers. In fact, some of the stars from here on are so prolific that you may be surprised to learn they even had smaller roles as children. For instance, you no doubt know Joseph Gordon-Levitt from films like The Dark Knight Rises, or Inception, but how often do you have to remind yourself that he was in the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun? Probably pretty often.
Even before he had audiences laughing as an alien trying to pass for a human, he had an assortment of other bit parts, appearing on the likes of Family Ties and Roseanne, and later, That ‘70s Show. There’s no need to wonder what Levitt is up to nowadays, because you just have to look at the trailers for upcoming movies to know when you’ll get to see him on your screen again. He won’t be starring The Sandman unfortunately, but he’s still one of the top young stars in Hollywood.
5. CHRISTINA RICCI
Looking at Christina Ricci’s early career, you’d think someone had her typecast as a morbid child. Some of her beginning work includes playing Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family movie, getting a role in Casper, as well as a part in The Cemetery Club. Maybe she should have stuck with it, though, because she received critical praise for her portrayal of Wednesday, and had a lead role in Casper. But as she grew up, she moved away from the macabre roles of her youth and showed off her versatility.
Fortunately, the outlook of Ricci’s career has been anything but grim since then. Ricci has found consistent movie roles ever since, including critically acclaimed films such as Monster. She’s also branched out into TV work, leading to bit roles on shows like Grey’s Anatomy. Though she’s developed a reputation for acting in independent films, it’s clear she can excel in whatever genre she decides to take on next.
4. ANNA PAQUIN
In contrast to a lot of other child actors on this list, Anna Paquin gained attention through a budding film career rather than appearing on TV. And she kicked off that film career in a major way, winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 1993’s The Piano. Not bad for an 11 year old in her first role. From there she’d go on to even bigger parts, such as the titular role in Jane Eyre, distinguishing Paquin as someone to keep an eye on.
And time has showed Paquin absolutely was someone to take notice of. She’s played Rogue in the long running X-Men film franchise, and landed the leading role of Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood. While Anna Paquin probably won’t be appearing in X-Men: Apocalypse, she’s obviously used to appearing in big parts, so it’s probably only a matter of time until she adds to her already impressive résumé.
3. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS
Neil Patrick Harris is another one who, unless you grew up in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, you’d be surprised he originated as a child actor. He continues to have major roles to this day, but back in his youth he only really started to gain attention for Doogie Howser, M.D. The show was by no means a critical darling, and in fact is something that Harris pokes fun at himself for nowadays, but it got him into the spotlight with a premise that was original enough to be remembered even today.
As for Harris’ current work, just take your pick. He spent nearly a decade as one of the co-stars on How I Met Your Mother, continues to take part in theater productions, and is one of the busiest actors in Hollywood. Lately, you may have seen him in the film adaption of Gone Girl where he demonstrated his capability to deal with darker subject matter. Harris has come a long way from his days of giving out the medicine of laughter as a teenage doctor on Doogie Howser.
2. NATALIE PORTMAN
Though it’s hard to image someone who won Best Actress from the Academy Awards ever having humble origins, Natalie Portman has had a long career and didn’t just jump right into some of her well-known roles in films, like The Phantom Menace and V for Vendetta. Yet, it’s not like her early films are hidden away in obscurity, either. A lot of you have probably seen her film debut at 12 years old in Léon: The Professional, where she was immediately rubbing shoulders with the likes of Gary Oldman.
From there, her career only got bigger. Her other early films had her acting for Woody Allen and Tim Burton in Everyone Says I Love You and Mars Attacks respectively. Portman seemed to have a rocket strapped to her career, and while the Star Wars prequel trilogy has obviously attracted a lot of derision, they were still a huge event at the time that Natalie was a part of.
After her inclusion in films like Black Swan as well as the Thor movies, Portman’s lasting mainstream appeal is self-apparent. There’s no need to chronicle the current career she has, except to say she’s easily one of the biggest success stories for child actors from the ‘90s.
1. LEONARDO DICAPRIO
It wasn’t until his late teens that DiCaprio found his way into playing characters on screen, but his ascent since then has made him the biggest success story on this list. Unlike Natalie Portman, though, his early showings weren’t immediately remarkable, with his first film being a role in the forgotten Critters 3. Leonardo had to push through a couple years of mediocre opportunities, but it eventually started landing him better parts in more appreciated films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries. Of course, the trajectory of his career was destined to take off in a huge way shortly after, with Titanic looming on the horizon for DiCaprio’s future, a movie that would cement him as a big name and give him a spot in one of the most successful movies of all time.
People might have pitied Leo because he didn’t win his award for Best Actor from the Academy Awards until last year for The Revenant, but his career hasn’t exactly suffered. DiCaprio is frequently in some of the biggest hits each year at this stage in his career, and shows no sign of slowing down. With the success he’s had and no doubt will continue to have, Leonardo DiCaprio is the biggest and most well-known child actor we saw come out of the 1990s, and quite possibly the biggest name in the industry today.
Did we miss any of your childhood favorites? Now that we’ve jogged your memory, go ahead and share any other big child stars that you remember from the ‘90s in the comments!